Orgel lysspill

Preserving church music

The Church music programme at the Norwegian Academy of Music has places available. The Church of Norway has vacant positions for church musicians. How do we ensure further recruitment?


Church music is the foundation of all studies at the Norwegian Academy of Music. In 1883 there was established an organist school in Kristiania (Oslos former name) by Ludvig Mathias and Peter Lindeman. Later the school became a music conservatory, and finally, in 1973, the school changed its name to the Norwegian Academy of Music.

– For a while now, it has been difficult to recruit enough church musicians, says Solveig Christensen. – This is no new phenomenon.

Solveig Christensen, senior advisor at the Norwegian Academy of Music and administrator of the PhD programme, wrote her doctoral thesis on the subject; Church Musician – Call and Profession.

The church music programme aims at educating candidates for a clearly defined profession. Unlike many other music studies. – Still, the musical standards for church musicians are just as demanding as for other musicians. A lot is expected of a church musician.

A church music education includes organ playing, improvisation, choir practice and conducting, composition, theoretical subjects and learning about religious practices.

The Church is changing

The amount of the population who are members of the Church of Norway is diminishing. Less people are being baptized, confirmed, and are given Christian burials. However, more people are attending cultural events arranged in churches. In other words, the Church is changing, and so is our use of it.

– Students do not wish to work in churches anymore. Nowadays it is associated with personal religious beliefs much more than before. The work is associated with certain opinions. I can sympathize with those who do not wish to start working at a place where their personal opinion might not coincide with the official one.

Only a generation or two has gone since church musicians functioned more as managers of the sacred musical heritage. Now they are part of a religious community and the framework in which they operate may seem more rigid for some.

The Church and cultural heritage

Sacred music is part of our national and European cultural heritage. Would it be possible to study church music purely as an artefact of cultural heritage? Is it possible to work as a church musician without subscribing to the Christian faith?

 – You don’t have to be a believer to be accepted as a student on the church music programme. Or to take your exams. However, it would surprise me if anyone wanted to work in a church if they had no sympathy whatsoever with the Christian faith, says Solveig Christensen.

Extensive demands on cantors

The church music education at the Academy is either a four-year bachelor programme, or a one-year continuing programme. The programme qualifies the students for the position of cantor in the Church of Norway. The qualifications are defined by the church Synod.

Service as cantor is quite extensive; Christensen coins them “Minister for Culture of the Church”. – However, if you ask a cantor what his profession is, he will most often answer that he plays the organ. “Organist” is also the term mostly used when referring to church musicians.

Show strength

The education of church musicians now faces two challenges. Firstly, ensuring recruitment. Secondly, developing the programme to meet the changing reality of church musicians.

Popular music genres like pop, rock’n roll, rap, gospel, and folk music are making their way into worship. Not only because of popular demand, but also as a requirement from congregations.

– The Church of Norway now requires us to play a variety of music, so we can’t just pretend like everything is at a status quo. To some extent, church music programmes have to meet the new requirements. However, education has to be independent and create informed candidates that use their knowledge in their profession. There has to be communication both ways. The Academy cannot base its whole education on requirements from the Church. We have to show our strengths and not let go of traditions it has taken centuries to build. Then we would lose our sense of history. One of our most important tasks is to administer our heritage.

Svarte orgeltangenter

Karin Nelson is professor of church music at the Norwegian Academy of Music and works with developing the church music programme. She says the recruitment problem is not specifically a Norwegian on.  Other European institutions are finding it hard to recruit students as well. Some places programmes are even being terminated. What can be done to facilitate better recruitment?

Teach the organ

A church musician must master the organ, so introducing the organ to students at a young age is important, she says. Teaching should be compulsory for cantors.

– Those who master the profession, playing the organ, have to pass on their skills to the next generation. The Church has to be open for this opportunity. If we want church musicians, this has to be a part of a cantors work.

It is also a problem that many church music positions are part time jobs, which makes it hard to support a family. This might make it less tempting to go for a four-year church music education.

Might exclude

In 2015 the Synod of the Church of Norway agreed upon obligatory consecration for new cantors. Until then it had been optional.

– It is a serious decision, to let oneself be consecrated. For some, it is a good thing, but for others it might be a gate closer. If they are passionate about sacred music, but don’t really relate to Christian faith, we might lose some students because of it.

Karin Nelson has colleagues that originally chose church music studies because of the music, and that grew into faith gradually. – This type of people we might lose, because of consecration. 

Who makes the calls?

To what extent should religious practices decide the contents of church music education at the Academy?

– The Academy is responsible for the church music discipline. We have to pass on our traditions, but still educate cantors that are attractive on the labour market. We have to unite these two things. We can’t just listen to what the churches want. Some of them might not want tradition, while others do. We have to be realistic, but still pass on tradition to the next generation.

Karin Nelson performs in several different genres when she plays the organ; she improvises with jazz and folk musicians and brings this to her teaching as well.

– We have to broaden the horizons of our students, so they will no longer see definite borders between music genres. Impulses from one genre may find its way to another, lets create an openness! Then students will bring this to congregations when they start working. I hope congregations won’t turn their backs on traditional sacred music. I hope they still want highly educated musicians. It is fantastic how much the students learn in four years! But I think the church music programme will change, probably in less than five years.


Last updated: 25. February 2016


Church music is the foundation of all studies at the Norwegian Academy of Music. In 1883 there was established an organist school in Kristiania (Oslos former name) by Ludvig Mathias and Peter Lindeman. Later the school became a music conservatory, and finally, in 1973, the school changed its name to the Norwegian Academy of Music.